Argentina moved within 90 minutes of Olympic gold tonight after booking their places in the Final of the Men's Olympic Football Tournament. In yet another emphatic display of assured football, the Albicelestes saw off the challenge of Italy (3:0) to set up an all-South American final against Paraguay on Saturday.

Goals by Carlos Tévez, Luis González and Mariano González gave Argentina another chance to win that elusive first gold exactly eight years after their last attempt ended in heartbreak in Atlanta.

The game started at a frantic pace with both sides more intent on attacking than stifling their opponents. It was no surprise then that the goal scoring chances came thick and fast. Italy had the first good opportunity on 4 minutes when Pirlo took a quick free kick and found Daniele Bonera. The no.5 caught the Argentine defence off guard with his cross, but unfortunately there was no blue shirt in the area to meet it.

Germán Lux then had to be at his sharpest to parry an Alberto Gilardino shot on six minutes, but it was the Albicelestes who were beginning to look more threatening. Moments later, Gabriel Heinze met Mauro Rosales's cross with a beautiful header and was unlucky to see it fly just inches wide of Pelizzoli's right post (8').

The capacity crowd at the Karaiskaki Stadium seemed to sense a goal was on the cards, and who better to rise to the challenge than Argentina's ace marksman Carlos Tévez. The Boca Juniors striker took up a great position in the heart of the area and picked up an inch perfect Mauro Rosales centre from the right. Matteo Ferrari tried in vain to clear the danger put only managed to tee it up for Tevez. From about ten yards out, the Argentinian no.10 volleyed home to break the resistance of the Italian defence (0:1; 16').

 

Argentina's Luis Gonzalez (L) and Italy's Giuseppe Sculli vie for the ball. AFP PHOTO
(AFP)
DANIEL GARCIA
After the goal and the player's trademark celebration, the game entered a stand-off period with neither side willing to risk too much. Italy tried to play to the often languid pace of Pirlo, while the South Americans looked to Luis González and Andrés D'Alessandro for inspiration. In the latter part of the first half, Italy came close with some high crosses and a well-struck Pirlo free kick (40), although they themselves looked vulnerable when first D'Alessandro (35') and then Cristian González (37') tested Pelizzoli with left-foot drives.

Marcelo Bielsa's men looked determined to wrap up the tie early in the second half. D'Alessandro continued to be instrumental in the best moves up front and almost scored himself with a left-foot shot that deflected off Ferrari and went just wide of the right post (51'). Claudio Gentile's men were by then noticeably pushing men forward, but the Argentinian coach responded by reinforcing his defence with Clemente Rodríguez.

A quarter of an hour into the second half and Argentina were beginning to look a little nervy. Pirlo always looked the player most likely to score for the Europeans, but the AC Milan midfielder could find no way past Lux, even after being set up by Simona Del Nero (58'). Pirlo tried again five minutes later, but this time could only watch as his curling free kick flew just past the right post (63'). With Italy letting so many chances go begging the inevitable had to happen.

The goal that effectively settled the tie came from a textbook Argentine counter-attack. Carlos Tévez picked up the ball in the middle of the park and skipped by two Italian defenders before heading towards goal. Just when it seemed he was about to go it alone he slid the ball through to Luis González, who hit a thunderous right-foot shot on the run into Pelizzoli's top corner (0-2; 69').

Italy tried to hit back but only managed to leave more space for the South Americans, and in particular Mariano González, to exploit. With his first touch of the ball, the midfielder finished off a sweeping Argentine move after Tevez broke free again down the right flank (0:3; 84'). "We were beaten by the best team in the tournament, everyone's favourite to take the gold. We knew they would punish us dearly for any mistakes we made, and that's exactly what happened. Argentina had all their players from their senior side out there," Gentile confessed afterwards.

Marcelo Bielsa, for his part, said he was proud to have guaranteed a medal for his country, but he refrained from any premature celebrations. "We'd rather concentrate on what more we can achieve than on what we've already done to date. Both Paraguay and Iraq are dangerous sides, which is why we wouldn't like to say who we'd prefer in the final."